Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Liberte, Egalite, Natalite—or Not

The French experience complicates the prospects of family policy–driven revival.

(Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

“The refrigerator came with the twins,” ran the quip in post-war France. The nation’s midcentury economic boom ran in tandem with a record number of births as millions of parents drew on generous family allocations to purchase the labor-saving devices and assorted gewgaws of the affluent society. By the end of the trente glorieuses—stretching from 1945 to 1975—France’s population had surged from 40 to 53 million. Great Britain’s population, in comparison, inched up from 48 million to 57 million over the same period. Europe’s post-war boom is now a distant memory, having proved as durable as the era’s hiatus from ‘history'. France’s relative fecundity has nonetheless endured: The birth rate per woman remains near replacement level at 1.9. Britain and Germany stand at an austere 1.5. Italy is at a barren 1.2.

France’s demographic exception defies simple explanation. The country’s fertility has run on an opposite track from the rest of Europe for centuries. France—perhaps due to the Revolution’s prohibition of primogeniture—appears to have been the first country to have discovered contraception in the middle of the nineteenth century. Between 1871 and 1931, Germany’s population jumped from 40 to 67 million. France’s barely budged in the same time frame from 38 to 40 million.


Guillaume Blanc, a professor at the University of Manchester, avers that France’s birth rates began to decline even sooner—in the eighteenth century, due to the waning influence of the Catholic Church. He cites the increasing absence of religious language in wills as evidence of his secularization thesis. But he fails to account for the fact that most Frenchmen did not write last testaments in a period when illiteracy was still the norm. He also neglects alternative explanations to which historians often point, such as the exhaustion of the land’s carrying capacity. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, peasants were pushing up into the stony foothills of the Pyrenees, such was the poverty of new land to put under the plow. 

Frenchwomen’s reticence in the bedroom, politicians feared, would spell geopolitical calamity. Denatalité could turn the mighty Gallic rooster into a senescent capon. France’s sterility meant the country would have almost no colonies of settlement—the one exception was Algeria, largely populated by Europeans drawn from across the Mediterranean Basin. The Great War’s bloodletting and fears of the enemy on the other side of the Rhine impelled interwar governments to ban contraception and introduce the continent’s first mothers’ allowances. The anemic birthrate also resulted in large-scale migration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Hexagon became the West’s top destination for migrants after the United States’ passage of the National Origins Act. Most of the influx stemmed from Eastern and Southern Europe, a trend that would hold into the seventies, when North African migration began in earnest.

France’s elites hoped to boost birth rates after World War II; one could argue for the success of their endeavor. The Hexagon was the most prolific Western European country in the postwar, its fertility rate rocketing to 2.85 births per woman in 1960 (the rate was 2.4 in West Germany and 2.7 in Great Britain). Many of the architects of the incipient welfare state were pro-natalists, including Christian Democrats such as Prime Minister Georges Bidault and Health Minister Robert Prigent. France’s family allocations reflected this tendency—subsidies only phased in with the second child and continued to grow with each new addition to the household. Many born in the 50s and 60s were reared in these familles nombreuses in which there could be ten or more children.

Yet there are clouds on France’s demographic horizon today. The nation’s birth rates have also been in decline over the past decade, sinking to 1.82 children per woman in 2021, a trend only exacerbated by the pandemic and the attendant destruction of social and cultural life. France, too, is aging, and the social safety net needs to be adapted to accommodate these shifts in the population structure—hence President Emmanuel Macron’s current push to raise the retirement age to 64. Some on the left have also been agitating for the state to extend the time limit for abortions and enshrine such a right in the Constitution. For now, this has come to naught, but as happens so often under the present administration, President Macron has triangulated, keeping mum on an extension of abortion rights while expanding the state’s reimbursement scheme for birth control. 

“Family policy” has become a watchword of the American right of late. Some view France as a model for such interventions: How the worm has turned two decades after “Freedom Fries.” But France’s avoidance of calamitous sterility is hard to explain. The United States never adopted a family policy, but in 1960 boasted a prolific total fertility rate of 3.85. France’s Scandinavian peers lavish larger family allowances and longer parental leave periods on mothers and fathers, but have lower birth rates. A recent French study attributes this to greater choice in the Hexagon as to whether a new mother should work or mind children at home. But this does not really pass muster: Scandinavian countries rate as more gender-egalitarian than and provide the same universal guarantee of child care as France. Norway, in contradistinction to France, allows couples to decide how to divvy up parental leave; France grants six months to new mothers and five weeks to new fathers. Immigration also cannot account for France’s relative fecundity—one can easily point to European countries with higher rates of migration and lower birth rates.

American rightists have also cast their gaze eastward to Hungary and Poland, where national-populist governments have implemented a suite of pro-natalist policies. Poland’s flagship program, Family 500+, gives parents 500 zlotys (around $115) a month for every child they have after the first. Hungary has granted women with four or more children a lifetime exemption from income tax, created a Family Housing Allowance whose value runs into the tens of thousands of dollars, and extended interest-free loans to larger families. The jury is still out on whether these programs are working, but there is no consensus that either country has precipitated a baby boom. Lyman Stone, writing for the Institute for Family Studies, argues that the Polish experiment has succeeded, while the Hungarian one has failed. Stone’s statistics show perhaps a six percent long-term increase in crude fertility rates in Poland. No doubt this is a welcome development, but such a minimal boost will not lift Poland to replacement rate. ‘Cash for kids’ might not be a sword in the ocean, but nor is it a panacea.

Are we then left to resign ourselves to fertility as a product of history’s immovable gyres? Yes and no. Across countries, one observes that economic prosperity tends to correlate highly with healthier fertility rates. In France, one can discern a downturn during the oil shock of the seventies and an uptick during the tech boom of the nineties and aughts. Economic expansion, in turn, often reflects and reinforces civilizational optimism. The French are notorious pessimists, a people whose celebrities often raise melancholy to an art form. Frenchmen still believe their country somewhat matters and there will be a future, bleak as it could be. 

Spain and Italy glare at a past of ignominy and a future of irrelevance. Germany is lunging into the grave to atone for the six million shot and gassed. Britain cannot accommodate itself to the status of a middling power. France remains, however, what it was: a first-rate second-rate power, confident that the squawks of the Gallic rooster will still be discernible amid the cacophony of nations. Government might have some business in the bedroom, to the chagrin of the left. But to the dismay of the right, the legislator seems at pains to work his will there.